Could a big enough solar storm send us back to The Dark Ages?
Scientists have been finding evidence of the sun’s misbehavior hidden in the secret records kept by tree rings and ice layers. Massive solar events like the one that happened between 774 and 775 CE were once believed to be anomalies. As more studies are conducted, further evidence comes to light suggesting that these storms are far more common than previously believed. More concerningly, if another one of these storms were to hit Earth today, the effects would be devastating.
Superheated Temper Tantrums
Our sun, like any star, is a massive nuclear fusion machine. It’s a gigantic ball of swirling, boiling gas whose surface bubbles and arcs. Due to convection currents and variation’s in the sun’s magnetic field, the elemental soup on its surface sometimes splashes a little, sending jets of charged particles and energy out into space. Solar wind is constantly bombarding Earth, but our planet’s magnetic field deflects it without issue. The auroras around the poles are the visible manifestation of solar ions interacting with Earth’s magnetic field. When stronger “gusts” of solar wind make contact with our magnetosphere, auroras sometimes wander outside of their normal range as the turbulence spreads. Following some of history’s most impressive solar storms, there have been firsthand accounts of the southern auroras as far north than the Tropic of Capricorn.
Back in 660 BCE, 2,679 years ago, Earth was bombarded by high levels of charged particles that had been jettisoned into space by the sun. The solar event of 660 BCE is the largest one scientists have managed to identify, rivaled only by the similarly chaotic event in 774/775 CE. Don’t let the age of these two storms fool you. The modern era is no stranger to these cosmic tempests. Another significant storm battered Earth back in the 1950s, and in the 1980s, a storm caused by a coronal mass ejection knocked out power to parts of Quebec. From the erratic data we have on these storms, it’s difficult to say how often they occur, or how bad they’ll be if we catch them brewing. What we do know is that, if the sun were to send another blast of ions toward Earth on the scale of the 660 BCE storm, we could be in for a world of trouble.
In late summer and early fall of 1859, one of the most spectacular solar events in modern history affected a majority of the world’s population. A massive solar storm sent seemingly unprecedented amounts of radiation hurtling toward Earth. The resulting electromagnetic disturbances in the atmosphere and on the ground were like something out of a fictional story. Now recognized as one of the largest coronal mass ejections in history, the Carrington-Hodgson flare is believed to have been the cause of the fantastic display. Written accounts claim that the auroras could be seen across the US, Europe, Japan, and Australia. They were supposedly bright enough to read by in the middle of the night.
During the Carrington event, scientists made the first substantiated connection between auroras and electromagnetic activity. The storm’s effects on Earth were enough to cause widespread outages of telegraph communications (and in the case of one, provide the perfect conditions to power the telegraphs for hours with the batteries turned off). In an era before spaceflight and widespread use of electronics, a solar storm of such size was able to cause a significant disturbance. If the sun were to give off another coronal mass ejection on the scale of the Carrington-Hodgson flare, we would lose contact with our satellites, our astronauts onboard the ISS would be put in danger, and technological failures across the globe would be extensive. Should we ever be unfortunate enough to experience an event like the one that battered the planet in 660 BCE, the devastation to our electronically-connected society would be unthinkable.